Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018

7th June 2018

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (19:38): I acknowledge and pay tribute to all speakers on both sides of the debate today, and those who will speak later. I was speaking to the member for Wallsend and reflecting that a few of us from my era—and some who entered Parliament before 2007—have seen a number of bills that have tested our moral compasses. They are bills which have made us think deeply about the issues, and members who are not prepared to think deeply about the issues really should not be here.

As has been said, this is one of the more difficult bills to deal with. In many ways, it is a relatively modest bill. However, it has certain fundamental implications, depending on how we view the issue of our fundamental freedoms within New South Wales and within Australia and the fundamental rights of persons, particularly women who want to safely access reproductive health clinics.

I support the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018. This bill is not about the question of abortion. It is not about whether one agrees with abortion, whether one's religious beliefs align with the right of a woman to have a choice, why a woman has made the choice she has, or indeed whether that woman has made the right choice. This bill is about protecting women who, while seeking lawful medical attention or advice, are exposed to unwanted and unsolicited advice from people who seek to impose their beliefs—religious or otherwise—in sometimes absolutely unacceptable ways. It is also about protecting workers who are merely trying to get to work without having to confront a wall of bullying, harassment and public shaming.

Like most questions and bills debated in this place, this is a matter of balance. To find the right balance on such a deeply personal and yet strikingly divisive issue, we must give a weighting in favour of the women directly affected. People have a right to express their views and opinions, but people also have a right to their own personal privacy and dignity—particularly in sensitive cases like this—without the sometimes significant amount of intimidation, coercion and shaming that can occur whether or not protesters or sidewalk counsellors believe that that is what they are doing. The vast majority of people who have considered the termination of a pregnancy— if not all of them—have given it a significant amount of thought. Most likely, they have discussed it with a partner, a close friend, a family member, or a suitably qualified medical adviser or general practitioner. It is not a decision that the vast majority of people make in a rushed or capricious way. People should not be subjected to unsolicited, unqualified and unwanted advice—if that is what these sidewalk counsellors wish to call it. On the other hand, we might call it intimidation or moral judgement.

As the member for Maitland mentioned, the term "sidewalk counsellor" is misleading and an abuse of the term "counsellor". Counsellors are appropriately qualified persons. With that qualification, they have responsibilities in the way that they carry out their work. There are ramifications for any breach of their professional responsibilities. That is not true for sidewalk counsellors, and therefore the term should not be used. We should respect the right to free speech, but we need to moderate the extreme application of that principle because there are people on the extreme edges of this debate who often pursue their beliefs in an unacceptable manner. I know that there will be extreme views on both sides of this debate, but I believe we need to address the right of the person who is accessing a clinic.

Voltaire has been widely quoted in this debate. He has probably been quoted reasonably, although I daresay his words have been paraphrased. What he said was:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

That is fine and dandy coming from somewhere in the 1700s, but I suspect that needs to be put into context, where there is a balance in the ability of people to be defended or to be on the other side of that particular quote. If somebody is in a vulnerable situation—physical, emotional, psychological—they are not in a position to have their rights to privacy dismissed by the glib quoting of a 1700s author.

Like most members of this House, I have received a vast amount of literature on this issue from groups or individuals who feel their presence outside an abortion clinic is merely a well-intentioned effort to provide counselling to a woman in need. Many of these people genuinely believe that to be the case. From my own experience, most of these people or groups have strong religious beliefs at their core—not necessarily exclusively. This is evidenced in their emails to my office, which invariably reference biblical texts. Again, they are perfectly entitled to those opinions and freedoms, but freedom of speech does not and should not mean unfettered freedom to intimidate, harass, bully or shame persons accessing such facilities. That is what happens in reality, at least on occasion, outside these clinics. One of my constituents who took the time to email me had this to say:

I regularly walk past a women's health clinic which provides women with access to abortions. I often see protesters outside harassing women and holding offensive signs.

The behaviour of these protesters makes me feel uncomfortable just as a passer-by. I cannot imagine what it would be like to need access to an abortion and to have to run the gauntlet of protesters at that difficult time.

He went on to say:

I have friends and family members who have had abortions. In every case it was a difficult but necessary decision and the experience was uncomfortable and distressing.

I hate to think of adding the judgement and abuse of strangers who know nothing about these women's lives, or the circumstances that may have brought them to the clinic at a really difficult time.

That is exactly right. None of these sidewalk protesters have any idea about the people they are approaching. They do not know if the woman they are plying with photos of aborted fetuses is the victim of rape or know anything else about her that has led to her decision. They know nothing of the circumstances of the person entering the clinic, and nor should they, unless that person has sought to share that information. Creating a safe access zone around health services that provide abortions is necessary to protect the rights of these women and their partners, including their rights to medical privacy or even their right to get to work without some sort of public shaming.

I note that the bill does not prevent those who want to mount a protest or public rally to advance their views or ideologies in public spaces from doing so. They can continue to do so right outside these very doors. The bill does, however, seek to prevent them from doing so within 150 metres of a place where abortions can be performed legally. I am satisfied that the bill will provide a level of protection for women that is long overdue and is reflective of a society that respects those women and their decisions, protects our freedom of speech as is implied in the Constitution—not absolute freedom—and opinion to an extent that it does not extend to bullying, intimidation and the sorts of public shaming that happens outside these clinics.

If this is not achieved through the bill, then members or future legislators should do what is common in this place, and that is to revisit the legislation to ensure that the intentions of the bill are indeed realised. Supporters of the bill are asked by those who oppose it to respect the right of protesters to express their views. Respect should be paramount in such a consideration and my views and support align firmly with the need to respect women's rights at such times. I thank the various members who have brought this bill, the Hon. Penny Sharpe in the other House and Leslie Williams, the member for Port Macquarie, in this House. On behalf of my wife, whom I referenced in this debate, I commend the bill to the House.

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